Rose was an only child, born to a Japanese father and a local Hainanese mother in Kuching. Her parents met after the Japanese war ended in Kuching in 1945. Her father, Nobuo Iwanaga was an interpreter for the Japanese government at the time while her mother worked in a local beauty salon. After meeting Rose's mother, Nobuo chose to stay in Kuching; together with a couple of his sisters. The rest of Nobuo's family members decided to return to Japan. One of Rose's Japanese aunties later became a teacher at St Mary's School.
Both of Rose’s parents have now passed on, the father being the most recent, six years ago at 95.
Rose herself was a student at St Mary’s School, and at the tender age of 18 in 1966 became Sarawak’s very first English-language recording artist as the solo singer of the band ‘The Avengers’, which comprised of local lads James Ong (rhythm), Jimmy Ho (lead), Peter Ho (bass) and Jalek Zula (drums). Jimmy and Peter are brothers, while Jalek’s real name is Haji Sajali Haji Julai.
After the group disbanded they went their separate ways – Jalek joined RTM (Radio Television Malaysia), Jimmy first joined the Police Force and later became a lawyer; Peter ended up as an aircraft engineer at MAS (Malaysian Airlines) and James became a businessman.
Rose Iwanaga and The Avengers as a performing band were very much in demand between 1966 and 1968 performing at stage concerts, private parties, charitable functions, night clubs, armed forces camps as well as over the radio! On one very special occasion they spent an entire week in Brunei doing concerts and performed at the then Sultan of Brunei, Sir Omar Ali Saifuddin’s 50th birthday celebrations!
Recalling those early days of yore, Rose was nostalgic and remembered them as being happy and wonderful times spent playing live in front of very appreciative audiences wherever they had performed.
The incredible fact of the matter was that they virtually performed as ‘professional musicians’ although they were not paid much for their work, which by today’s standards could actually be termed as a pittance! More often than not they were only reimbursed with airplane tickets, complimentary hotel stays and free food plus some small token monetary payment of maybe a few hundred ringgits or dollars.
Rose Iwanaga, Kuching’s golden songstress celebrates her 50th anniversary as Sarawak’s first recording artiste!
Come January 2016, Rose Iwanaga (now Rose Khoo) will celebrate her golden anniversary as the country’s very first English recording artiste, having had her very own vinyl record featuring four songs in an EP (Extended Play) for the famous Philips label. Many of her songs continue to be in popular demand right up to this day – her signature tune ‘Too Young’ and the Neil Sedaka hit ‘Will you still love me tomorrow’. There were others too like ‘Please tell Terry’ and ‘Say you’ll be Mine’.
Sarawak’s current chief minister Adenan Satem himself was a member of a 7-piece band in the mid 1950s called ‘The Vagabonds’ who used to perform at the famous Museum Grounds Bandstand. He was a vocalist and loved singing songs made famous by Elvis, P Ramlee and Cliff Richard! His band was a model in harmony comprising a Eurasian, two Chinese and four Malays! They were much sought after in the day, and disbanded in the ‘60s.
Whatever money they had made as a group was then all channelled back into their band’s own kitty – used mainly to buy replacement or new musical instruments, as well as stage and sound equipment and for their own wardrobe for use at their stage performances! One could easily say that playing music as a profession couldn’t have sustained anyone as a paying career.
For the few years that they were playing together as a group they were able to keep it all alive due to their common interest and love for their music, and also for the excitement of giving live performances! Together with the thrill of giving audiences everywhere a chance to listen to their very own style of pop music, this made it all worthwhile.
Rose and the Avengers continued on after their first recording to make two more EPs in Singapore a year later in 1967 which contained 8 new songs – while there, they also appeared on TV Singapore and performed at the National Theatre with Singapore’s own The Checkmates.
During this time another local Kuching female vocalist who had begun to create interest on the airwaves was Janice Wee, who together with her backing group The Mascots had produced two hit songs with ‘That One Boy’ and ‘I Walk the Line’, for Universal Music. Janice also recorded two EPs.
Despite their popularity and the good sales of their records, Rose and The Avengers never did make much money from the proceeds or royalties accrued to them from their songs and recordings.
These were the days before the formation of PRISM Berhad (Performers Rights and Interest Society Malaysia Berhad.) It has now been estimated that between the years 2004 and 2014, in a period spanning ten years, the music industry in Malaysia had collected an amount of RM679.4 million in copyright fees.
Performers however complain that they get very little of this money. The fees collected are meant for music authors, composers and publishers, recording companies and performers. PRISM Bhd says that the recording companies get the bulk of the copyright fees leaving many local artistes and performers with only a few hundred ringgits a year – and there are even others who have alleged that they never received any payment at all!
Regardless to say, way back in 1966 or even prior to 2004, our entertainers and performers in all the fields encompassing the arts – were never paid any royalties at all! Rose told me that she had only recently registered herself as a PRISM member!
Even today, fifty years later, with many new bands coming into the scene due to the proliferation of many new pubs and bistros in town which gives them more opportunities for stage exposure, the current rates and fees that they attract have not increased by much. A standard 4 or 5-piece band would be paid in the region of RM1,500 to RM3,000 per night for a gig of between 3 to 4 hours. It’s a great pity and a poor reflection of how local musicians are still not treated fairly even though they may be world class!
As for the imported bands, usually from the Peninsular, Indonesia or the Philippines, who are usually here for a 3-4 week-long contract, their rates could vary according to their negotiating power and the venue, depending on whether it’s at a 5-star hotel like the Hilton or a nightclub like the Lido. They could be paid between five to ten times more!
On looking back, after 50 years “in the music business” and having done something she has always loved and enjoyed – for Rose, it was a time of no regrets, only appreciation and gratitude that she was able to bring so much joy and happiness to her fans, her friends and to all those who have only fond memories of those ‘good old days’ when they now hear her voice again live at any of her local performances, or hear any of her songs being played over the radio or television!
As a matter of fact they can even find her old recordings on YouTube videos nowadays – just do a quick search for them!
After the group disbanded, Rose took up a job at a well known local travel agency where she worked till her recent retirement a few years back. She now involves herself with church work and some charitable organisations and from time to time travels the length and breadth of the country helping out with causes close to her heart.
Ten years ago, in 2005 for a brief period some musician friends of hers had decided to form a group called ‘The Time Machine’ with Rose as the main vocalist; other members included Vincent Lee and Jimmy Kueh. Then in 2012, four of her friends regrouped to become known as ‘The Young Once’, which roped in Jimmy Kueh again, with the addition of Gordon Swyny, Patrick Sim and Awang. This group is still going strong playing at many family and friends’ events and happy occasions.
Today, Rose herself continues to sing as an invited Special Guest at events and functions at family and friends’ birthdays, weddings and other celebratory occasions! Her voice is still as vibrant and as youthful; she sounds perfectly in tune and can replicate to the note every single lyric from those popular and well known songs from fifty years ago...as the memories that the original song had emoted linger on, and as the song and the singer pull at your heart-strings - Rose our very own golden songstress continues to sing her way into your heart...for one more time!
‘The Avengers’, had comprised local lads James Ong (rhythm), Jimmy Ho (lead),
Jalek Zula (drums) and Peter Ho (bass)
Edgar Ong was born in Kuching, has worked and traveled throughout Sarawak and Sabah during his early career with British, Japanese and German conglomerates, and now as a fixer for his own company Borneo Film Locations. A social activist he also writes and co-produces films.